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Ask a child if he would rather do physical therapy or play with a remote control car and the answer will be obvious. But now researchers at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design have designed a way for him to do both, by creating toys specially developed for children with neuromuscular diseases.

The toys, originally designed by students in a joint Brown-RISD course, are meant to complement the benefits of physical therapy for children with Cerebral Palsy, said Professor of Orthopaedics Joseph Crisco of the Warren Alpert Medical School.

By using the toys, the children effectively "have therapy for a much longer period of time," Crisco said, adding that the key of the project is to disguise therapy as play.

The development of the toys resulted from a collaboration between Crisco, Clinical Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurosciences Karen Kerman '78, RISD Associate Professor of Industrial Design Khipra Nichols and students in Crisco's course, "Toys for Rehabilitation."

Crisco said he and his colleagues came up with the initial concept for the product in the fall of 2006. His students designed the actual toys throughout the fall semester. The students worked on several different concepts, including specially designed walking shoes to help children with climbing disabilities and remote-controlled toys for children with hemiplegia, he said.

According to Crisco, many children with neuromuscular diseases are unable to use the same toys as their friends and siblings because these toys frequently require the use of fine motor skills, such as pulling a trigger or pressing a button. To overcome this problem, Crisco's students pulled out the wires of common toys and redesigned them to be controlled through movements of the wrist or arm.

The result is similar in concept to the Nintendo Wii remote, Crisco said, except that the new toys respond only to movements made by the forearm — which is enclosed in a brace — rather than to full-body and arm movement.

As the goal of the project was to use the toys for "targeted joint therapy," Crisco said, the designers did not want the toys to respond if the child were "standing on (his) head."

The researchers' goal is to send the toys home with the children to augment their other therapy, Crisco said, adding that the toys have data logging capabilities which can tell doctors how much the children have been using them.

In 2008, the group received a grant to develop prototypes of the toy controllers and began conducting a small pilot study. Now the researchers are applying for funding from the National Institutes of Health to upgrade the toys to commercial quality.

If the researchers get funding, Crisco said he would like to involve students in further developing the toys and researching their effectiveness.


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